Today in History – April 7

Jazz singer Billie Holiday was born on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. She made her professional singing debut in Harlem nightclubs in 1931 and her first recordings in 1933. Although she had no formal musical training, she became one of the greatest jazz singers of all time; her recordings are now regarded as masterpieces.

Mama may have, Papa may have,
But God bless the child that’s got his own.

Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr., “God Bless the Child”

[Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947]. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division

Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues,1 opens with the line: “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married; he was 18, she was 16 and I was three.” Holiday’s given name was Eleanora Fagan, but when she started to perform she chose the stage name Billie after Billie Dove, a star in silent, and later sound, movies.

A Terrible Blot on American Civilization. 3424 Lynchings in 33 Years… Washington, 1922. Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

The tension of racism was a powerful subtext to Holiday’s life story. Because of Jim Crow laws, still in effect through most of her career, Holiday occasionally found herself in the ironic situation of being the featured vocalist in clubs that refused to serve blacks. The liner notes to Immortal Sessions of Billie Holiday describe her 1939 rendition of Lewis Allan’s “Strange Fruit,” a composition about lynching, as “…the most anguished and harrowing expression of protest against man’s inhumanity to man that has ever been made in the form of vocal jazz.” 2

Nicknamed “Lady Day” by musician Lester Young, Holiday often wore white gardenias fastened in her hair when performing. She worked with many jazz greats including Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and, in the film New Orleans, Louis Armstrong and Kid Orey. She appeared at both small clubs and prestigious venues such as Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater.

View of the Apollo Theatre Marquee, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division

Billie Holiday not only sang but arranged and composed. Her credits in the latter areas include “Don’t Explain,” “Fine and Mellow,” “I Love My Man,” and “God Bless’ the Child.” She died at age forty-four on July 17, 1959 in New York City.


Today in History – April 6

On April 6, 1917, the United States formally declared war against Germany and entered the conflict in Europe. Fighting since the summer of 1914, Britain, France, and Russia welcomed news that American troops and supplies would be directed toward the Allied war effort. Under the command of Major General John J. Pershing, over two million U.S. troops served in France during the war.

Company “I”, 102 Inf., 2b Div., A.E.F. El Juan Studio: Juan Casablanca, photographer, c1919. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

For three years, President Woodrow Wilson strove to maintain American neutrality. Anti-war sentiment ran across the political spectrum. Middle-class reformers such as Jane Addams as well as radicals such as Emma Goldman opposed U.S. involvement in the war.

I’m hitting the trail to Normandy so kiss me goodbye. Chas. A. Snyder & Oscar Doctor, words & music; New York: Snyder Music Pub. Co., 1917. World War I Sheet Music. Music Division

Although he later supported the war effort, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, resigned over the Administration’s failure to remain neutral. However, a series of incidents, including the loss of 128 American lives when German submarines sank the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, changed public opinion. On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, warning that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”

The war mobilization effort placed tremendous demands on both American military and civilian populations. In a wartime speech, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, noted that the U.S. work force was fully committed to victory:

The World War in which we are engaged in is on such a tremendous scale that we must readjust practically the whole nation’s social and economic structure from a peace to a war basis. It devolves upon liberty-loving citizens, and particularly the workers of this country, to see to it that the spirit and the methods of democracy are maintained within our own country while we are engaged in a war to establish them in international relations…

The workers have a part in this war equal with the soldiers and sailors on the ships and in the trenches…They are demonstrating their appreciation and loyalty by war work, by loaning their savings, and by the supreme sacrifice. Labor will do its part in every demand the war makes. Our republic, the freedom of the world, progress, and civilization hang in the balance. We dare not fail. We will win.

Labor’s Service to Freedom. Samuel Gompers, recorded Jan. 16, 1918; New York: Nation’s Forum, 1918. American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, & Recorded Sound Division

American participation in World War I permanently transformed the nation. In order to meet increased demands for goods, the federal government expanded dramatically, taking an unprecedented role in guiding the economy.

Active supporters of the war to preserve democracy, women made a step towards political equality when the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchised them shortly after the war. Meanwhile, military service and wartime jobs beckoned African Americans northward. In what is known as the Great Migration, thousands of African Americans left the South and its systems of oppression to face new challenges in Northern cities.

For Every Fighter a Woman Worker; Y.W.C.A.: Back Our Second Line of Defence. Ernest Hamlin Baker, artist; N.Y.: The United States Printing & Lith. Co., 1918. Posters: World War I Posters. Prints & Photographs Division


Today in History – April 5

Conservationists, civic leaders, and government officials submitted testimony before Congress in favor of the establishment of the National Park Service on April 5 and April 6, 1916.

The parks are the Nation’s pleasure grounds and the Nation’s restoring places…

J. Horace McFarland, president of the American Civic Association, National Park Service. Hearing Before the Committee on Public Lands…, April 5-6, 1916. Washington Gov’t. print. off., 1916. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, Underwood & Underwood, c1906. Chronological List of Presidents, First Ladies, and Vice Presidents of the United States: Selected Images From the Collections of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

The congressional debate over the proper management of the growing system of national parks began in 1912 and culminated with the passage, in August 1916, of the National Park Service Act. This legislation created the National Park Service within the Department of the Interior. Stephen T. Mather was named its first director.

In making his case for the agency, Richard B. Watrous, Secretary of the American Civic Association, recalled the rationale made by Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger in 1910.

“In order that creditable progress may be made in each of the national parks,” Ballinger had written:

liberal appropriations will be required…to create a bureau of national parks and resorts, under the supervision of a competent commissioner, with a suitable force of superintendents, supervising engineers, and landscape architects, inspectors, park guards, and other employees.

Richard B. Watrous, Secretary of the American Civic Association, National Park Service. Hearing Before the Committee on Public Lands…, April 5-6, 1916. Washington Gov’t. print. off., 1916. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Others pointed to the long-term economic benefits likely to accrue from the efficient investment in and management of the national parks.

When it was established on August 25, 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) supervised 40 national parks and monuments in some 390 areas. It now includes 419 units or parks, and more than 150 related areas covering more than 85 million acres in every state, as well as in the District of Columbia, and the U. S. territories. NPS sites—not only national parks and monuments—but also battlefields, military parks, historic sites, recreation areas, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores and seashores, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House, attract hundreds of millions of visitors each year.

Proposed line of rail roads and hotels. [Yellowstone Park]. ca. 1900. Mapping the National Parks. Geography & Map Division
Lake McDonald, Glacier Park, Mont. Haines Photo Co., c1915. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division


Today in History – April 4

With the simple question quoted below, Carrie S. Burnham began her argument, made before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on April 3 and April 4, 1873, for her right to vote. “It is not simply,” Burhnam reasoned, “whether I shall be protected in the exercise of my inalienable right and duty of self-government, but whether a government, the mere agent of the people, …can deny to any portion of its intelligent, adult citizens participation therein and still hold them amenable to its laws…”

Have women citizens the right of suffrage under the Constitution of the United States and of this particular State of Pennsylvania?

Carrie S. Burnham, Woman Suffrage: The Argument of Carrie S. Burnham…, Philadelphia: Citizen’s Suffrage Association, 1873. National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Carrie Burnham’s protest against the exclusion of women from the electorate began in September 1871, when she took measures to comply with local election laws in the Fourteenth Ward of the City of Philadelphia. She attempted to vote on October 10, 1871.

Votes for Women Postcard; Color Illustration of Woman Suffrage Headquarters Building, Fifth Avenue, New York City. New York, [November 1909]. In the Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911. Scrapbook 8 (1909-1910). Part of the National American Women Suffrage Association Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

When polling officials rejected her ballot, Burnham petitioned the Court of Common Pleas for the right to vote on the grounds that she met the legal definition of a “freeman” and a citizen of the United States. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania disagreed. Woman Suffrage: The Argument of Carrie S. Burnham… includes the full text of Burnham’s argument as well as a history of the case (beginning on page 88), and the text of the opinion of the Honorable George Sharswood(beginning on page 94). Sharswood’s opinion, delivered on December 30, 1871, was upheld by the Supreme Court on April 5, 1873.


Today in History – April 3

Writer John Burroughs was born on April 3, 1837, in Roxbury, New York. Like Henry David Thoreau before him, Burroughs gained a wide following for his observations, in the form of nature essays, of the world around him. Burroughs published his first collection of nature writings, Wake-Robin (excerpted in In the Catskills), in 1871. Among his best known works are Birds and Poets (1877), Locusts and Wild Honey (1879), Signs and Seasons (1886), and Ways of Nature (1905).

…man made the city, and after he became sufficiently civilized, not afraid of solitude, and knew on what terms to live with nature, God promoted him to life in the country…

In the Catskills, Selections…, by John Burroughs. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1910. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.

Noon Meditations at Slabsides/Kellogg & Innes. (Portrait of John Burroughs, seated in rocking chair). c1901. Evolution of the Conservation Movement 1850-1920. Prints & Photographs Division
In the Catskills. Phila.: J. Hoover, c1887. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1899, Burroughs joined a host of luminaries, including fellow naturalist John Muir and painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes, on a scientific expedition along the Alaska coast. Burroughs’ writing is one of several items featured in The Harriman Alaska Expedition: Chronicles and Souvenirs May to August 1899, a private souvenir album created by the members of the expedition.


Today in History – April 2

At approximately 7:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 2, 1865, Ulysses S. Grant’s army attacked Confederate lines at Petersburg, Virginia. By mid-afternoon, Confederate troops had begun to evacuate the town. The Union victory ensured the fall of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, located just twenty-five miles north of Petersburg.

President Jefferson Davis received word of the events in Petersburg while attending services at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond. He abandoned the capital late that night on a train bound for Danville, Virginia.

I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight…

Telegram from Robert E. Lee, in Petersburg, to Jefferson Davis, in Richmond, April 2, 1865. 1

Petersburg, Va. General view. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, photographer, [1865]. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

Richmond, meanwhile, burned, as fires set by fleeing Confederates and looters raged out of control. Davis was eventually captured by Union soldiers, but not until May 10, 1865. 2

Richmond, Va. Ruins of Richmond & Danville Railroad Bridge. Alexander Gardner, photographere, [1865]. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division
Richmond, Va. Street in the Burned District. 1865. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division


Today in History – April 1

April 1, commonly known as April Fool’s day, has long been an opportunity for children to tease their teachers. In an interview with a writer employed by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, Mrs. Sally Marlowe of Marion, South Carolina, recalled:

We used to run off in the woods on April Fools’ Day and stay till twelve o’clock noon come — then we would all show up to the schoolhouse. What you reckon they done to us for it? Kept us in school so late every evening that week till the moon would be shining bright enough to show us the road home.

The Skippers.” Sally Marlowe, interviewee; Annie Ruth Davis, interviewer; Marion, South Carolina, January 19, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Old Heidelberg. c1905. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division
Rural School near Milton, North Dakota, 1913 Miss Margaret McKay, teacher external. Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection. Digital Horizons: Life on the Northern Plains External. North Dakota State University Libraries, Institute for Regional Studies
Interior of “little red schoolhouse.” Crossville, Tennessee. 1935. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

Dr. Samuel Lathan recollected engaging in similar antics while attending “an old field school” near his childhood home in Fairfield County, South Carolina.

April the 1st was dreaded by most rural school teachers. The pupils would get inside and bar the teacher out. The teacher, who didn’t act on the principle that discretion is the better part of valor, generally got the worst of it. Mr. Douglass soon learned this, and, on April Fool’s Day, he would walk to the school, perceive the situation, laughingly announce there would be no school until the morrow, and leave.

Dr. Samuel B. Lathan. W.W, Dixon, interviewer; Winnsboro, South Carolina, June 28, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division


Today in History – March 31

On March 31, 1917, the U.S. took formal possession of the Danish West Indies. Renamed the Virgin Islands, this chain consists of St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and about fifty other small islands, most of which are uninhabited. Lying about sixty-five kilometers east of Puerto Rico at the end of the Greater Antilles, the U.S. purchased the islands from Denmark for $25 million because of their strategic location in relation to the Panama Canal.

One of the Steep Streets on the Hillsides, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. Jack Delano, photographer, Dec. 1941. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division
Cultivating Sugar Cane of Virgin Islands Company Land, vicinity of Bethlehem, St. Croix. Jack Delano, photographer, Dec. 1941. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division
The Virgin Islands, Sugar Cane Country.. Jack Delano, photographer, Dec. 1941. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

The Virgin Islands are known for their delightful tropical climate and a growing season that never ends.

Many different groups have claimed ownership of these islands. When Christopher Columbus landed on St. Croix in 1493 the islands were occupied by the native Carib Indians. By the time that Europeans began to settle there in the 1600s, most of the native population had died from diseases introduced by early explorers.

In the Old Fort Built by the French, Frederiksted, Saint Croix, Virgin Islands. Jack Delano, photographer, Dec. 1941. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

The islands went back and forth between Spanish and French rule. Danish settlers arrived and began growing sugar cane using convicted criminals and, after 1678, African slaves for labor. Over time, St. Thomas became a major Caribbean slave market.

After the French sold the islands to Denmark in 1733, the Danish military took up residence on St. Croix and, using the captured leaders of a local black slave revolt, began work on a fortification. Later they built a permanent masonry fort and named it Fort Christiansvaern (“Christian’s Defense”) in honor of King Christian VI of Denmark-Norway.

Denmark kept a policy of strict neutrality in foreign affairs during the years of the American Revolution. However, special interests in both Denmark and in the West Indies often circumvented that policy. According to a 1988 report by the Department of the Interior:

One such case involved the smuggling of arms and supplies to the “patriot” side during the American Revolution. This action led to an exchange of salutes — a traditional courtesy — between a merchantman flying the Grand Union flag and Fort Frederik at the west end of St. Croix. This action, albeit unofficial, constituted the first acknowledgment of the American flag from foreign soil.

From Fort Christiansvaern, by Jerome A. Greene and William G. Cissel. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1988. p4.

Children at the Peter’s Rest Elementary School near Christiansted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Jack Delano, photographer, Dec. 1941. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White negatives.Prints & Photographs Division
St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. F.E. Cook, c1922. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division


Today in History – March 30

On March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars. Critics attacked Seward for the secrecy surrounding the deal, which came to be known as “Seward’s folly.” The press mocked his willingness to spend so much on “Seward’s icebox” and Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”

Portrait of Secretary of State William H. Seward, officer of the United States government. Brady National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C.), photographer, ca 1860-1865. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

Under the aegis of explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering, Russia established a presence in Alaska in the early eighteenth century. Russia initially approached the United States about selling the territory during President James Buchanan‘s administration, but the Civil War stalled negotiations. Seward, secretary of state under presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, supported American expansion and was eager to acquire Alaska. However, convincing skeptics that Alaska was an important addition to the United States was a challenge. Thanks to strong support by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate approved the treaty by a vote of 37-2 on April 9, 1867. Nonetheless, the appropriation of money needed to purchase Alaska was delayed by more than a year due to opposition in the House of Representatives. The House finally approved the appropriation on July 14, 1868, by a vote of 113-43.

The discovery of gold in the late 1890s increased Alaska’s value as a U.S. possession and boosted its population. In 1912, the region was granted territorial status. During World War II, Japan invaded the Aleutian Islands of Agattu, Attu, and Kiska in 1942. Although the islands were retaken by U.S. troops within a year, the threat to Alaska prompted the construction of the Alcan Highway and an increased military presence in the region.

Alaskans approved statehood in 1946 and adopted a state constitution in 1955. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower announced Alaska’s entrance into the Union as the 49th state.

Seward, Alaska, 1915. F.W. Sheelor, photographer, 1915. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

The town of Seward, Alaska, located on the Kenai Peninsula at the head of Resurrection Bay, was founded in 1903 as a supply base for the construction of a railway to the Yukon Valley.


Today in History – March 29

An enormous ice dam formed at the source of the Niagara River on the eastern shore of Lake Erie on March 29, 1848. Just after midnight, the thunderous sound of water surging over the great falls at Niagara came to a halt as the flow of water became severely restricted due to the ice jam. The eerie silence persisted throughout the day and into the next evening until the waters of Lake Erie broke through the blockage and resumed their course down the river and over the falls.

[Niagara Falls, General View from Hennepin Point, Winter]. A.G. Landreth, c1914. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

By 1848, Niagara Falls was already a popular tourist spot, attracting thousands of visitors each summer. Daguerreotypist Platt Babbitt set up a studio and began taking images of tourists watching the falls in 1853.

American Falls from Goat Island, Niagara. c1908. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

The commercial development of the land surrounding the falls sparked a movement to preserve the falls’ natural beauty through public ownership. These efforts culminated in the July 15, 1885, opening of the 400-acre Niagara Reservation State Park. Now known as the Niagara Falls State Park, it is the oldest state park in the country.

In his address at the opening of the park, James T. Carter, an eminent New York lawyer and legal scholar, made an eloquent plea for the preservation, through public ownership, of scenic wonders. “These visions of Infinite Beauty here unfolded to the eye are not a property,” Carter insisted, “but a shrine—a temple erected by the hand of the Almighty for all the children of men.” Carter’s address is featured in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.